Former Army Chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt, is reported in today’s Sun as criticising the government over its level of commitment to the Afghanistan deployment. There’s no doubt at all that he was a very fine officer, yet ironically his words may have the opposite effect from the one he hopes to give us. On the whole, soldiers naturally want to soldier and to be as professional as they can be, but politicians must take growing public opinion about this matter carefully into account when they make the big decisions. The stock line politicians use to justify our present commitment levels in Afghanistan is that we must do all we can do to keep our streets in the UK safe. However there are more and more people ready to point out the obvious truth about our European allies’ much lower commitment in Aghanistan. They are left wondering if it is really true that our streets are more safe than they were before 911 or more safe in London than Berlin, France or Rome.
The fact is, I think, that the decision on whether to upscale troop levels now or in the future is very much one for President Obama. If he decides to go ahead and put more troopps into Afghanistan, then that is what will happen, regardless of the decisions that are made by NATO or European allies. The real question for the UK government is therefore whether we can, in the face of growing public opinion against high deployment levels, still justify our disproportionate commitment.
General Dannatt’s words make it less likely. If the UK is requested to send extra troops by the USA and then doesn’t, it will be a blow to Obama not because he can’t do it without us, but because US public opinion is even more strongly against the deployment than ours. If Britain fails to give ‘allied’ political support at this time the situation is serious for Obama. I think that in the face of the modest contributions given by our European allies it’s becoming close to intorerably difficult to justify asking for more British troops to take life and death risk on behalf of all Europeans.
We are approaching a tipping point and it’s not at all guaranteed that President Obama will go ahead with the increase in numbers his field commander wants and many in our own military would support.